‘There’s a new chapter in my life,’ declares Alec Baldwin. That means his personal life — he recently married Spanish yoga instructor Hilaria Thomas — and his professional life: 30 Rock, the critically acclaimed television comedy series that raised and redefined his reputation as an actor, is coming to an end this month after seven seasons. As we’ll see, it might also mean his political life. Baldwin is a famously vocal Democrat, and an increasingly active one; during the recent election, he recorded an advert for Obama — not just some misty endorsement, but an attack against Mitt Romney’s stance on the automobile bailout.
Might this new chapter include more time in Britain? Baldwin’s an Anglophile — ‘I love London and am always happy when I’m there,’ he says. He loves English comedy: ‘The most successful comedies in the US seem to be rather simple and one-note… British comedy just seems more subtle and layered.’ And he’s acted notably in plays by English writers, Caryl Churchill and Joe Orton included. So why, I ask, has he never appeared in the West End?
He had discussions, he tells me, in the days before 30 Rock: Donmar Warehouse, National Theatre, Royal Court. Nothing quite came of it. ‘There’s a real consideration lifestyle-wise. Would I like to do that? Yes. But it’s not easy to do. I just got re-married and my wife is settling into living in New York. The show is being produced by a new producer.’ Hilaria, he emphasises, makes him happy.
As I speak to Baldwin over the phone, we’re interrupted by Hilaria engaging in an animated conversation in Spanish. He’s intense, assertive and articulate, and although he has a politician’s habit of answering several questions of his choosing before he gets to the one he’s been asked, he can be open and reflective. Here he is, for instance, on his doubts about acting as a career: ‘There’s a big part of me that wishes I hadn’t done this and I had done something else. Sure, I’m very torn about that but the business is filled with people that way. There’s always something else people want to do that is more substantial.’
If you really want to get Alec Baldwin talking, the subject to choose is politics. We have discussions either side of the election. When I first bring up the subject, his reply is an abbreviated US political history of the last 20 years. It is worth quoting in full. ‘Americans are no different to people in other countries. They’re always responding to existing conditions. I remember Clinton being portrayed in the media as very shrewd, very Machiavellian, very cunning. Some people thought he was morally doubtful. His opponents or people who were undecided about him got Clinton fatigue. This teed up the ball for the opposite of Clinton, a guy who was an intellectually incurious born-again Christian moral absolutist. Bush makes a catastrophic mess of everything and people want to believe in someone who is doing the job to be of service to their country and not necessarily be a corporate shill and they go as far out on a limb as they ever had. Will they now want a fund-manager-in-chief?’
He meant Mitt Romney, who reminded him of New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg: ‘a bean counter, a guy who is all about numbers and money ledgers’. ‘The reason Bloomberg succeeded and got away with it is because New York is overwhelmingly controlled by wealthy people. The middle class has been pretty muted. The poor have always been muted. Bloomberg is not a particularly inspirational guy, not a particularly moving speaker. His ideas are not all that soaring.’
Much to Baldwin’s relief, the fund-manager-in-chief didn’t make it. He is a left-wing Democrat, though not an unthinkingly party-line one — he criticised Obama over the BP oil spill — and his response after the victory is not to bask in euphoria but to set out his hoped-for agenda. ‘I feel like we have a real chance at least to get started on facing those four or five things staring us in the face that will determine if the US standard of living has even a remote chance of sustaining. Environmental protection, infrastructure rebuilding, energy independence, proper regulation of financial markets, and investing in education. I had little hope for any of those if Romney won because they require amendments in current tax policy.’
Alec is on a roll. When I ask how his own political views have evolved since the 1970s, when he majored in political science at George Washington University, he responds with a lengthy evaluation of US drone attacks in the Middle East versus the effects of full-scale military invasion and ends by revealing his apocalyptic fears for his country: ‘The US is competing with other parts of the world for its resources and military intervention is probably going to be a part of our lives forever. You just don’t see that economic forces are going to allow this change that we need. If I look at US history the way it’s always been, then these kinds of military interventions are never going to end. We’re going to live this way until the country no longer exists whenever that happens.’
And on the Westminster stage, what does he think about David Cameron’s coalition? ‘The thing I follow most closely there is the Leveson inquiry, anything about Rebekah Brooks and Murdoch.’ Baldwin makes it clear he would like a Leveson inquiry in the US. ‘If they were doing that over there, you have every reason to believe they were doing that here as well. There is no market that is bigger for media outlets in terms of the tabloids and generating trash than the US. It’s a reasonable question to ask if they were doing that here and to look into it. But I’m sure during that time there were people out there shredding documents, deleting the emails and doing things behind the scenes.’
He’s not opposed to the government and the fourth estate having a relationship, he stresses. ‘The idea that the press and government officials have a cosy relationship wasn’t invented by Murdoch and Cameron. I’m not opposed to the press being invited to have a drink every now and then with them [political leaders] but to become more consistently compromised? That’s what I object to.’
It’s clear Rupert Murdoch is not on Baldwin’s Christmas card list. He has previously called the News Corporation owner a ‘cryptofascist’, having long been a target of the Murdoch-owned New York Post, and sees him as a malign influence on the papers he doesn’t own, too. ‘The New York Daily News always had a gossip column but they were genteel compared to the Post. Now the Daily News has hired someone from London who worked for Murdoch [Colin Myler]. Editors are competing with each other on that level and they’re getting the Brits to do it.’
Baldwin’s political stance has shaped his movie career. He once said: ‘I don’t give a shit what [powerful Hollywood agent] Mike Ovitz thinks of me. I care what Mike Ovitz’s gardener thinks of me.’ After a decade in TV soaps and supporting roles, he made his name in the early 1990s in films such as The Hunt for Red October and Malice. But the leading man cloak never quite fitted and a fiery marriage to the actress Kim Basinger, which ended in divorce in 2002, didn’t help his career. (The story of their divorce is recounted in his 2007 book A Promise to Ourselves with a confessional frankness unusual in a celebrity memoir. Sample line: ‘The child actually believes the alienated parent is comparable to Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein.’)
Baldwin can often be seen on Turner Classic Movies talking fondly about old films and it contrasts with his feelings about his own cinematic canon. ‘I have always had a rather uneven experience making films,’ he admits. ‘However, Turner Classics helped me to get back to touching the world of cinema in a way that I am abundantly comfortable with: as a viewer and a fan.’ He likes to work with up-and-coming directors, and his enthusiasm for them shows in his performances. Acting may have started as just the best way to earn a living, but it’s more than that now. ‘The opportunity to get into the business presented itself and it was on a very small scale. I didn’t become a movie star when I was 18 years old. It was an incremental process and presented me with economic opportunities to help my family. I started very small and I built my way up but along the way I grew to love it.’
The passing of his matinee-idol phase came with the compensation of some substantive roles: a supporting part in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed; an Oscar-nominated performance as a casino owner in The Cooler. Then came 30 Rock in 2006. The role of the brash television mogul Jack Donaghy — a powerful rogue dispensing witty put-downs — was tailor-made for Baldwin. It revitalised his acting career, winning him Emmy and Golden Globe awards. But although he says the show was the most enjoyable thing he’s ever done, he’s at peace with it coming to an end. ‘I used to think I would miss it a lot. I think everybody was so happy that the show was so clever. With any decent actor, the material is primary and this was very good material. But I’m now very glad that it’s over and excited to work on other things. I’ve got the radio show I’ve been doing’ — Here’s The Thing, a podcast interview series — ‘and I am going to write another book and to continue making films.’ The book, he says, is ‘a fictional memoir about my life’.
There’s another potential role I have to ask about, especially given his comments on Bloomberg. People have spoken of Baldwin as a potential candidate for New York mayor, or for governor of the state. And it’s certainly not something he rushes to rule out. ‘I have no idea right now how that would work out but it’s something I think about. It’s finding what I would do.’
Don’t expect the campaign website to go live tomorrow, but Alec Baldwin has never done things by the book, and a political career would be the role of a lifetime.